You can break down each character’s goals into three types: professional, private and personal.
‘Professional’ refers to the job that needs to be done. A monster has to be killed, a treasure has to be found, a wedding has to take place etc. This physical goal drives the main story and gives the hero something to do.
‘Private’ is something that characters want for themselves. It may not be the main focus of the story as it doesn’t necessarily affect other characters, but a character that only acts out of pure altruism and self-sacrifice is both unrealistic and a little annoying.
‘Personal’ is more about the psychological needs of the character. Whatever flaws or hang-ups the character might have (and he should definitely have some), there will have to be a resolution or understanding reached at some point in the story. This aspect is often the most rewarding and satisfying in a novel, but also risks being the most clichéd and obvious.
These three elements are often very closely linked and intertwined, but they can also be very separate. Both approaches have their advantages and their disadvantages.
A typical example of a story with closely bound goals would be something like this: a knight has to kill a rampaging dragon (professional); he’s in love with the princess the dragon has captured (private); he fears he is not good enough to be allowed to marry into the royal family (personal).
An example of a story with more divergent goals might be something like this: a government spy has to stop the villain detonating a nuclear bomb; he has to tell his girlfriend he’s not an accountant before they get married; he’s a recovering alcoholic and constantly struggling against relapse.
In the dragon example you can see that each goal is directly affected by the others and it is pretty straightforward to keep all three in the mix as the story progresses. The problem is likely to arise at the end of the story as everything suddenly gets resolved at the same time. All that build up and suddenly the dragon’s dead, the girl’s in his arms and the future looks bright. And all in one paragraph. It can make for a rushed and unsatisfying ending.
In cases like this an uninteresting solution is usually due to an uninteresting problem. Adding a few wrinkles (the princess has fallen for the dragon, the king has sent assassins after the knight, the knight converts to Buddhism...) can help give the ending less of a one-shot and done feel to it.
With the spy example, while showing different aspects of the hero’s life can add depth and complexity, it can also create a mishmash of ideas that don’t appear to have anything to do with one another. Trying to push these elements together can feel forced and contrived. Out of nowhere it’s revealed the villain is the long lost brother of the girl our hero is set to marry. Or he happens to attend the same AA meeting as the bad guy’s main henchman. How convenient...
To some degree there is an expectation and acceptance of these sorts of contrivances from readers. We all know if a cop is terrified of heights that at some point they are going to find themselves up on a roof chasing the killer. In those situations it’s not so much about avoiding expectation as it is about how you handle it. With enough tension and momentum it’s possible to pull off the most outrageous occurrences, but it’s also possible to fall flat on your face.
In both kinds of setups (intertwined or divergent) the main factor is going to be the character. They are always the one constant shared by all goals, so making that character as engaging and three-dimensional as possible makes it a lot easier for reader’s to transition between the three types of goals without feeling things are either too rushed or too random.
Easier said than done, but it is the third element, the ‘personal’, that usually gets overlooked. Often this inner-conflict is just the obvious thing you see all the time in a particular type of story. A love story where the girl is afraid to love after a bad experience, a thriller where the hero has to keep his rage in check, a fantasy where the chosen one isn’t sure he’s up to the job.
There’s nothing wrong with fulfilling an expectation even if it’s one that’s been done before, many stories are built on archetypes people like to read about. But when you settle for a generic attitude or posture without thinking about the reasons behind it, it comes across as superficial and unconvincing.
Not that you need to have a degree in psychology before you start writing, but spending a little time thinking about the specifics of what troubles your characters when they’re lying alone in the dark (even though that scene might never make it into the story) can make all the difference.
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